Before I begin, it’s important to understand a little about dialogue in fiction. Regardless of what you might read on the page, dialogue in a story is NOT about two people talking to each other, nor is it written speech.
Dialogue is one of the most important tools at a writer’s disposal. It should represent, but not mimic real speech. And it should impart vital information.
The good part here is that it is not as difficult as it seems.
Dialogue as Conversation
Consider doing some “official dialogue research” sometime soon and you’ll understand what I’m talking about a little better. Go and sit in a coffee lounge, or in a crowded cafe, and eavesdrop. If you have one, take a pocket-recorder, like the ones reporters use, to a party or family gathering.
Whichever you do, listen carefully to how and what people are saying. The stutters, the pauses, the idle chit-chat, the mundane trivia, the interruptions, the incomplete thoughts and the abbreviations are all filtered by our brains as we listen, but to type it out EXACTLY as it is spoken would bore a reader to tears.
Concentrate on refining and focusing a conversation so that it flows smoothly and reads like a real exchange between how we would imagine two people would interact. It should seem realistic, but the human oddities and inflections should be removed.
Dialogue to Give Vital Information
The exchange between your characters should impart more than just inane chatter. It needs to propel your plot forward, show your character’s personality, reveal something about what your character is thinking or feeling.
While you are worrying about adding all of those inflections, remember that the way a character speaks to another will also show a reader a little about his social standing, his education, his background and beliefs.
Sounds difficult, doesn’t it? This overly-technical description does not need to be a frightening step in creating great dialogue. Here’s an example:
“I would expostulate that the inverse of said trajectory is infinitely more plausible than the former theorem,” said the professor.
“Huh? Whaddya mean?” the janitor said.
Okay, those characters are a little typecast, but you get the idea. I’ve (hopefully) managed to highlight a little about both character’s education levels and social status in just two lines of dialogue.
You would never give your protagonist the wrong information or let him speak with the wrong accent, would you?
Surprisingly, a lot of writers do, and it only serves to destroy the trust in you as a writer that you’ve built with your readers. For example:
“I would expostulate that the inverse of said trajectory is infinitely more plausible than the former theorem,” said the janitor.
“Huh? Whaddya mean?” the professor said.
This doesn’t exactly ring true as the right person speaking, does it?
Dialogue Done Badly
Overdoing the creative mechanics of dialogue can be the difference between a great, edge-of-your-seat exchange and an accidental joke. The boring tag “said” may not seem exciting, and won’t show your character’s actions, but it WILL keep your reader firmly in your story. “Said” is one of those invisible words that the human brain is capable of filtering out, so mostly people will by-pass it, registering that a particular character has spoken and continue on through your plot.
When you start to add too many “bookisms” or “said bookisms” (depending on which How-To manual you read), you not only mark yourself as an amateur, but you force your reader to consider why your character is hissing a line or why she is yawning a clearly understood sentence. Let’s put our clichéd characters into action.
“How dare you!” the professor sneezed.
“Huh? How dare I what?” the janitor laughed.
“You cleaned the toilet,” the professor elucidated.
“Did I?” queried the janitor.
These are all unnecessary tags, which don’t lend to your story or your plot, and do NOT show your character in action.
Of course, removing the “bookisms” and using the word “said” but adding adverbs instead is more common.
“How dare you,” the professor said angrily.
“How dare I what?” the janitor said worriedly.
“You cleaned the toilet,” he said enigmatically.
“Did I?” said the janitor simply.
This weakens the exchange. Replace the adverbs with stronger dialogue that speaks for itself.
Direct references can also stilt your dialogue. Regardless of the fact that some people really DO speak this way, it is not good practice to use it in dialogue.
“Fred, you cleaned the toilet.”
“Did I, John?”
“You know you did, Fred.”
“Oh, John, why would I do that?”
Info-Dumping Disguised as Dialogue
“Info-dumping” is a term usually used to describe a large chunk of information thrown at the reader to explain background details, or to recap a portion of plot. Hiding it inside dialogue is not only tacky, it makes your characters suddenly less believable to your readers. Let’s bring out our trusty characters to explain…
“As you know, Fred, I invented the quantum disposition theory in 1999 and worked hard to bring it to the attention of the faculty for the past two years. I won several awards for my thesis, if you remember.”
“Yes, John, I do remember. You also managed to change my genetic structure enough so that I now have twelve fingers on my left hand and an earlobe growing out of my chest, for which I received that medal of honor in 2009.”
This form of dialogue feels false and lifeless and reminds the reader that you, the invisible writer, really are there with them, reminding them what to look at now. Never use dialogue to tell the reader things the characters already know. In our real-life conversations, we all refer to past events, but we don’t explain them in minute detail because we already have the memories with us. It would be better to give out hints and build up information gradually.
Another clichéd trick is where the bad guy ties up the hero, then explains everything just before the hero breaks free.
The easiest rule to follow when creating dialogue is to be sure your characters are being themselves. If you’ve truly created realistic people to work with, then you will know when something is out of character, or physically impossible for him to achieve. You will also be able to recognize much faster when your dialogue is not moving in the right direction.
I have to make a bit of a confession here before I end this article.
You see, I’ve studied up on “The Art of Creating Great Dialogue” in many different shapes and forms over the years, and every different reference tells us almost the same thing.
At least there is some consistency there, right?
The problem I have is that I’m guilty of breaking the rules at least once. All of them, not just a few!
How on Earth can I write an article on how to do it right when I’m guilty of the very things I’ve advised NOT to do?
Simple. Rules are meant to be broken. Some of the time, anyway. Basically what this means is that, within reason, it IS okay to use the occasional “bookism”, and it’s fine to add an adjective or adverb here and there. Show your readers your character’s local dialect in parts.
How does the old saying go?
Everything is fine in moderation
And keep writing!